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CBN, multiagency push on advancing Financial Inclusion for Women October 19, 2020
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Central banks and development Finance institutions everywhere, are gradually coming to terms with women’s inherent potential as bridge builders and astute business practitioners. This has resulted in the formulation and packaging of specialised business support schemes  to help sustain and grow businesses promoted by the womenfolk.

Until lately, women, especially in Africa and the third world generally, were never reckoned with, nor acknowledged as  players in the formal economic and business space. They were not acclaimed as significant contributors to growing their countries’ GDP. This narrative is reflected also in the limited exposure of women to formal education which in itself has been a drawback and a hindrance in assignment of roles to women, especially in corporate bodies. In no other setting has women issues taken the center stage, more than in financial inclusion and gender equality.

The groundswell of opinion and advocacy on the need for women to be given their pride of place is resonating everywhere. The awareness and the continuing agitations by both men and the women folks to expand the playing field and grant access to all on the basis of equality and competency, can no longer be ignored. Everywhere, people are taking steps to tear down the artificial barriers created by the society to limit women’s aspirations by deliberately capping their growth projectile in business and by extension, financial intermediation. Some of these limitations and practices are themselves ingrained in cultural practices, certain religious beliefs and affiliations. But to a considerable degree, all of that is changing now.

The fight for, and the agitation to give women their place and space is gaining considerable  momentum. The women are in the forefront pushing the frontiers, with cognitive support from corporations and specialised international bodies. The banking sector propelled by the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), is driving the project, with the active engagement of the United Nations, as well as the World Bank. The underlying message is that women posses equal  abilities and potentials as men ( some might even argue that women are more endowed), and as such should be encouraged to assert and unleash their potentials, to whatever positions and levels of engagements they wish and desire for themselves, and this without any inhibitions from any quarters.

The Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), Godwin Emefiele, had announced in the National Financial Inclusion Strategy report for 2018, that as part of the National Financial Inclusion Strategy (NFIS), more attention will be given to women, Micro Small and Medium Enterprises and to the northern part of the country in order to achieve 20 per cent financial exclusion target by 2020.

He said: “In order to meet the NFIS target of 20 per cent financial exclusion for adults by 2020, the strategy has been refocused to explore five priority themes of youth, women, rural areas, Micro Small and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs) and the Northern region,” saying “these priority areas are expected to close identified gaps and tremendously advance financial inclusion. Emphasis will also be placed on the use of technological tools in improving access to finance among the underserved,” Emefiele said.

According to UN Women, over the past decade, 131 countries have passed laws to support gender equality. This achievement, regretably may have suffered a setback with the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak, particularly with regards to financial inclusion and economic empowerment of women.

In recognition of the existing  gap between men and women and the  limitations placed on women on several fronts  with respect to financial inclusion, coupled with the downside devastating impact of the coronavirus pandemic, the CBN developed and   launched the Framework for Advancing Women’s Financial Inclusion in partnership with the Financial Inclusion Special Interventions Working Group (FISIWG), Enhancing Financial Innovation and Access (EFInA) and Women’s World Banking (WWB).

At the e-Launch of the Framework, CBN’s Deputy Governor, Financial Systems’ Stability, Mrs. Aisha N. Ahmad,  gave insight on the state of  financial inclusion of women in Nigeria. She said there was nearly 10 per cent gap in the financial exclusion margin between men and  women. She said the female financial exclusion rate was 40.9 per cent in 2018 compared with 32.5 per cent for men, pointing out that the gap  “may have widened as a result of the coronavirus pandemic given women’s primary responsibility for care giving, likelihood to be frontline health workers and their predominance in the informal sector which has been severely affected by the coronavirus induced-lock down.

Mrs. said the negative effects of the pandemic on women’s financial inclusion have manifested in the existing structural challenges which have kept women out of the financial system. She listed cultural norms, lower education and financial literacy levels, poverty, high cost of financial services, concentration of women in rural areas, subsistence farming and limited knowledge of financial institutions in serving the women’s market, as some of the  limitations women have to contend with.

These challenges, Mrs Ahmad added, “ call for bold and concerted efforts on the part of regulators, policymakers and other stakeholders in the financial sector to implement strategies that will help change social attitudes, reduce structural barriers and economically empower women to advance their financial and economic inclusion over the long term.’’ She said the CBN support the development of the framework  to complement some of its existing initiatives designed to expand access to finance for women.

Some of the schemes, she said include the Micro, Small and Medium-size Enterprise Development Fund (MSMEDF).  60 per cent of which is dedicated to women and women controlled businesses, adding that over 62 per cent of the fund  has been granted to about 134,000 women. The  National Collateral Registry is equally involved in determining the types of securities  acceptable to support the loans.

Factors responsible for gender financial disparity

As already established, there’s about 8.5 per cent gap that needs to be bridged to bring women at par with their male counterpart on the financial inclusion paradigm. Unfortunately, this gap is said to be widening. The Minister for Women Affairs, Mrs. Pauline Tallen, who featured in representative capacity during the launch of the financial inclusion programme for the women, outlined some of the challenges responsible for widening gender-financial exclusion gap. These include vulnerable state of women-owned businesses, the digital divide, limited awareness of government intervention programmes and pressures of domestic responsibilities.

Mrs. Ahmad also  urged all stakeholders to carefully review and implement the eight strategic imperatives presented within the framework; stating that focused implementation and collaboration amongst financial institutions, policy makers, regulators, development institutions and the public was required not only to close the gender financial exclusion, but to ensure a safe, accessible and affordable financial system for all excluded Nigerians.

Banks’ driven schemes

The gender gap in Nigeria represents a major issue to be resolved if the country is to achieve the targets it set in its National Financial Inclusion Strategy (NFIS).

Empowering women through improved access to finance and social support are crucial in achieving the desired growth for the economy. This is the belief of First Bank of Nigeria Limited. The bank believes that investing in women’s economic empowerment sets a direct path towards gender equality, poverty eradication and inclusive economic growth. It acknowledged that the enormous contribution made by women, whether in business, or as farmers, entrepreneurs or employees, or by doing unpaid care work at home, is huge and should be preserved.

First Bank is therefore supporting women’s economic empowerment through FirstGem, which gives them economic voice and brings many unbanked women to the financial system. The bank has advanced more thanN58 billion loans to over 81,000 women-led businesses and interests. Besides, 44,356 women (corporate and individual, including members of staff of the bank) currently own and operate the FirstGem account with a seating balance of N2.4 billion.

Also, the Agent Banking platform – which the bank leads in the industry – has promoted not just financial inclusion of women, but also their independence, as there are many women among its Agent Banking which showed that there are 38,185 male banking agents, and 11,762 female banking agents.

FirstBank Managing Director/CEO, Dr. Adesola Kazeem Adeduntan, said women-led businesses constitute a large part of the banks’ balance sheet and stream of income, adding that the bank will continue to give priority to issues that affect women.

He said the bank is also in tune with the Nigerian Sustainable Banking Principles (NSBP), which requires that companies promote gender equality in workplace, adding that women remain some of the best workforces and always make great impact in establishments.

He said FirstBank believes that women need to be economically empowered, pointing out that unless social concerns such as gender disparity and women economic empowerment are addressed, economic and environmental goals and overall sustainable development will be difficult to achieve.

Adeduntan said the introduction of FirstGem, a female-focused product by the bank has contributed to the development of the Nigerian economy. Speaking at the FirstGem third anniversary conference held in Lagos, the bank chief said he was delighted that FirstGem is promoting savings culture, financial literacy, loan management, wealth creation and healthy lifestyle for women. Adeduntan said the product has a wide array of advisory, health and current awareness services for the discerning woman.

At the heart of empowering a nation and developing communities, is women empowerment, letting them express their opinions as individuals. Studies and research carried out by organizations such as the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and Africa Development Bank, continue to assert this by adopting gender-based strategies in a bid to eradicate poverty and improve the economy of a nation.

Empowering women by granting them access to vast opportunities and information will not only lead to personal development for women but also the development of the communities and societies they operate in.

Access Bank remains at the forefront of women empowerment by leveraging on the ‘W’ initiative as a channel. The Bank pioneered women banking in Nigeria with the establishment of the Gender Empowerment Movement (GEM) in 2006 which later evolved into the ‘W’ Initiative, officially created in 2014. Such dedication to women empowerment has led to over 35 per cent of its customer that are women.

The ‘W’ Initiative, the bank said, is a robust plan to provide women with banking solutions tailored to meet their diverse career and lifestyle requirements. It is a virtual community that aims to inspire and connect women to opportunities nationally and internationally, as well as give them a rewarding banking experience. In simpler terms, the ‘W’ Initiative is the home for everything Access Bank offers women and is open to all women irrespective of who they bank with.

By THE NATION